Two foundations that serve the needy achieved the kind of spotlight at Sunday’s night’s Academy Awards telecast that any nonprofit yearns for: A shout-out from a famous celebrity to the 10 million or more people estimated to be watching the Oscars from home.
Time will tell whether the Motion Picture & Television Fund Foundation and the Tyler Perry Foundation will enjoy windfalls from receiving Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Awards. But given the vast exposure they received, donations for the foundations’ causes are almost sure to rise.
The MPTF, the first organization to win the special humanitarian Oscar, received a lengthy personal introduction from Bryan Cranston to celebrate its 100th anniversary of providing for the needy of the industry.
Actress Viola Davis presented the award to Perry, the actor, filmmaker and philanthropist, after a presentation from Whoopi Goldberg that spoke of his support of food-insecure families in Georgia during the pandemic. Hunger is only a part of the foundation's work, which ranges from education to climate change and human rights.
“When I set out to help someone," Perry said in his acceptance speech, "it is my intention to do just that. I’m not trying to do anything other than meet somebody at their humanity.”
For charitable foundations, history suggests that a public embrace from a celebrity can pay off.
Consider what happened 2015 after Patricia Arquette mentioned GiveLove in accepting her award for Best Supporting Actress for “Boyhood." Donations to the small nonprofit, which teaches safe sanitation practices in Latin America and Africa, doubled for the year, according to its tax filings.
Arquette's call-to-arms to close the gender wage gap was even more impactful.
In declaring, “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all,” to the meme-worthy delight of Meryl Streep and others in the audience, Arquette created a viral moment that helped elevate the issue to a new level: It generated years of support and is credited with helping lead to the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act in the House of Representatives earlier this month.
That kind of success has led key sectors of the philanthropy world to seek ways to create more such occasions. At the same time, leaders of nonprofits and foundations caution that it's important to choose causes with care.
“The celebrity mention is always a good amplifier in some way, but that falls short if we don’t have the kind of proof in the work to back it up,” said Alison Moore, CEO of Comic Relief US, a nonprofit involved in fighting poverty and injustice through events like the forthcoming Red Nose Day.
But showcasing a celebrity’s relationship to a nonprofit can establish an indelible association for viewers.
“We have the benefit of so many celebrities actually being really deep friends, coming back to work with us year after year and giving their time and their focus,” Moore said. “We marry that with our deep focus on our mission and really moving the needle through the programs that we support. That’s the magic right there — the combination of the two.”
Feeding America found such magic this year with the Golden Globes. That awards ceremony named the hunger-relief organization, which runs 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs, its philanthropic partner for the year and spotlighted its work during the broadcast.
Lauren Biedron, Feeding America’s vice president of corporate partnerships, said the Golden Globes partnership boosted traffic to the website by 35% on the day of the show and online revenue by 200%, with donations for COVID-19 relief reaching $2 million within 24 hours.
“They also helped us expand our marketing and our reach to a broader audience and then, importantly, they helped drive action by really providing a concrete way for people to get involved,” Biedron said, noting that the Globes aired a QR code linking to the Feeding America website.
The attention comes as Feeding America is experiencing intense growth, having become one of the most popular grantees for donor-advised funds in 2020 for the first time. Yet that growth has been outpaced by the need driven by the pandemic and the economic damage that followed. Feeding America's food banks, Biedron said, are feeding 55% more people now than they were a year ago.
“We know that long after the vaccine rolls out and the spotlight fades, people will still be in need of food,” she said. “It will be a marathon — for our organization and our food banks on the ground — to continue to meet the moment that we’re in and ensure that communities are nourished.”
Though viewership for awards ceremonies has dropped during the pandemic, the Oscars still provides a global platform for many philanthropic organizations and social causes to get their messages out.
Chi-hui Yang, the Ford Foundation’s senior program officer for its JustFilms initiative, which funds documentaries, suggested that getting high-quality films made on important topics is a victory in itself. Once a piece of art is made, Yang said, it can inform and inspire for years to come. If it is nominated for an Oscar, as JustFilms' “Crip Camp” — about how a long-ago summer camp helped inspire the disability rights movement — was for Best Documentary this year, the attention intensifies.
“Automatically, you have an issue and an author that is vaulted into very high media visibility,” Yang said. “That is very difficult for any issue or any project to do, so there’s these possibilities for films to be able to really be injected into high levels of the public discourse."
From a philanthropic perspective, he said, an Oscar nomination can be nearly as valuable as a victory.
“Even to have (co-director Jim LeBrecht) there as a visibly disabled individual to represent the film and be nominated — let alone possibly win — and to be able to speak to the issues — I think it’s important."
“That proximity to the real is very important,” he said. “I think that stands for something to the public. And it shifts the way that we see things, the way that we talk about things.”
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